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A blog about branding, marketing, and design, mostly through the lens of practical psychology, intended to be a resource to small businesses and entrepreneurs. Unless otherwise noted, all articles are written by Nyla Smith, owner of n-Vision Designs. {Subscribe to the RSS feed here: RSS}

"N" is for Negative Space (How to Use Gestalt Theory for a Memorable Logo)

Nyla Smith | Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Don’t be fooled by the term “negative space.” When it comes to logo design, negative space can be used in very positive ways. As with many other aspects of design, we can look to the field of psychology for insight on how to use negative space to create a memorable logo.

The Psychology of Negative Space

A more common term for negative space is “white space,” but that term is also misleading because the space up for discussion is not always white! A more accurate (and longer) definition of negative space is “The space between or surrounding elements, or the passive area created by an active element.”

In the field of psychology, Gestalt theory attempts to make sense of how our brains process visual stimuli or extract meaning out of seeming chaos. That makes sense since “Gestalt” is a German word that means “shape” or “form.” The main premise of Gestalt psychology is that when we look at a group of objects, we process the whole form it creates before we see the individual parts of which it is composed.

dalmation optical illusion
The “dalmation optical illusion” is a famous example of negative space you’ve probably come across at some point in your life.

With the illustration above it’s an aha! moment when you finally discern the dog from the seemingly random black dots. You don’t see the individual parts of the dalmation (leg, tail, ear) and then logically add up all the pieces. Instead, all of a sudden the dog seems to jump out at you in its full form.

In cases like the dalmation optical illusion it can be said that, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” (True Gestalt psychologists would correct you and say “The whole is other than the sum of its parts,” which is a more accurate translation of this famous saying.)

Keep to Your Principles

Gestalt psychology relies on certain principles that also help describe how negative space can be used effectively in logo design. The Principle of Reification, for example, refers to making something real, bringing something into being, or making something concrete. When it comes to our perception, this is a constructive principle because our brains construct more information than is actually present.

The Principle of Multistability states that if a pattern is ambiguous (meaning it has more than one interpretation) the brain will alternate between them, seeing each as a stable form, but never simultaneously.

This principle employs the figure-ground distinction, which describes the eye’s ability to separate a figure from its surrounding background. Multistability comes into play when the figure and ground are interchangeable.

The most famous example of this is the Rubin Vase. When you look at the image below, what do you see? Do you see two faces or a vase? The brain perceives one or the other and try as you might, your brain is hardwired to perceive the figure as either two faces or a vase. At any single moment, you must perceive either one or the other, but not both at once.

Rubin Vase
Mesmerizing, isn’t it? M.C. Escher fans, rejoice!

Laying Down the Law

In addition to principles, Gestalt Psychology has a number of laws to describe how we perceive groups of objects. For instance, the Law of Closure describes the brain’s tendency to complete a shape even if it is not fully closed or contained. In other words, true to the Principle of Reification, our minds fill in the gaps.

In Figure (A) below we see a triangle, even though no triangle is actually present, only three incomplete circles. By the same token, in Figure (B) your brain does not attempt to process each black cone individually, but instead perceives a three-dimensional shape that isn’t actually drawn.

Reification Principles

Negative space is a powerful tool, don’t you think? As the examples above prove, negative space has a life all its own! In design, negative space should always be thoughtfully considered, not treated as just background. Are you ready to turn negative space into a positive for your company’s logo?

Ways to Use Negative Space

Negative space can be used to create some pretty clever visual entendres or optical illusions in conceptual art or logos. Here are five logos in which negative space is the star of the show:

  1. Girl Scouts

    The Girl Scouts logo uses white space to create multiple silhouettes:
    Girl Scouts Logo
  2. USA Network

    The USA Network logo, redesigned in 2005, makes use of white space for the letter S:
    USA Network Logo
  3. Snooty Peacock

    Snooty Peacock, a jewelry boutique in Texas, is one of my personal favorites:
    Snooty Peacock Logo
  4. Spartan Golf Club

    Another favorite of mine is the Spartan Golf Club logo, which cleverly shows both a golfer mid-swing and the profile of a Spartan helmet:
    Spartan Golf Club Logo
  5. Pitsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

    If you liked the Rubin Vase image, you are going to love how the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium plays with the figure/ground relationship in its logo.
    Pittsburgh Zoo Logo
    (It may take a few looks, but eventually you will see the gorilla on the left and the lion on the right.)

Psychology and Your Logo

If you want to create a logo for your company, the first step is to choose an experienced logo designer. Experienced designers tend to naturally craft more conceptual and evolved designs and will always consider possibilities for the creative use of negative space.

Many inexperienced designers haven’t yet developed this way of thinking and may fall back on very literal graphics or executions that will seem boring or unoriginal. Since your logo will be representing your company for years to come, be sure to seek out a seasoned design pro over a less-experienced newbie.

If you already have a logo concept that you like, think about a way it can be turned up a notch with the clever use of negative space. What else does your brand stand for that may not be represented in your logo? Is there an opportunity for negative space to play a bigger role? In most cases, the answer to both questions is probably “Yes.”

If your company already has a logo, step back and take a look at it. Does it seem cluttered? If so, what elements can be removed? The smart use of negative space is an opportunity to create something more simplistic, modern, and memorable.

For example, consider the evolution of NBC’s well-known peacock logo. The logo in use from NBC’s inception in 1956 through 1975 was a literal, distinct representation of a peacock:

NBC logo in 1956

In 1985 NBC redesigned their logo by paring down the graphics and using negative space to effectively create a cleaner, more modern look:

NBC logo in 1985

In 2013, the logo was updated to feature gloss and gradients, but the execution of negative space that makes the logo so successful remained:

NBC logo in 2013

Summing it Up, Zen Style

All this talk of psychology and design can be a lot to take in, so I want to leave you with a quote from the ancient Chinese philosopher and poet, Lao-Tzu, who very eloquently summed up the importance of negative space in our lives:

“We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel; but it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends. We turn clay to make a vessel; but it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends. We pierce doors and windows to make a house; and it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends. Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.”

Nyla Smith is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 12 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.
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